Kotzebue Sound mostly spared from storm damage

water from flooding in Kotzebue
Large puddles remain on Caribou Dr. in Kotzebue on Tuesday, Sept. 21 following Typhoon Merbok. Kotzebue was not hit as hard as communities further south, like Nome and Hooper Bay. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

The Northwest Arctic Borough city of Kotzebue was spared major damage from the weekend storm which lashed Western Alaska.

City manager Tom Atkinson said there was some flooding in homes along the southern edge of town and the small boat harbor on Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, he says water was already draining back out to sea.

“Given that Kotzebue is seven feet above sea level things are kind of tight in terms of the water being up high enough to actually cover most of Kotzebue, but fortunately we never got to that point,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said the impact to homes was “minimal” since most houses are built on posts above the ground.

Kotzebue is about 200 miles north of Nome, on the other side of the Seward Peninsula. University of Alaska Fairbanks climatologist Rick Thoman said the former Typhoon Merbok had weakened significantly by the time it passed through the Bering Strait, which is why communities along the Chukchi Sea saw much less damage than those farther south like Nome and Hooper Bay.

“The Seward Peninsula is a great big wall of land there and the Bering Strait is very narrow. And so there’s a pretty narrow gap there where water can squeeze through,” Thoman said.

Thoman added that storms this far north tend to get their power from big differences in air temperature. And since it’s still fairly early in the season and not very cold yet, he said, Merbok didn’t have the chance to pick up strength as it moved north.

The storm surge never crested the sea wall built on the north edge of Kotzebue in 2012 to help protect the town from coastal erosion. 

Atkinson said the storm did cause erosion damage in some parts of town exposed to Kotzebue Sound, including two bridges on Ted Stevens Way, which leads south out of town. The short term solution is to replace the ground that was washed away, hopefully before freeze-up sets in in a few weeks.

In the long term, Atkinson said the city is pursuing more permanent solutions like extending the sea wall and installing a storm drain system for the city. 

“I think the storm made it obvious to us that if these types of events keep happening, which we all know they probably will, that we have to continue to find ways to keep water out of town,” he said.

Atkinson said Kotzebue’s utilities, including electricity and wastewater removal remained in service throughout the storm.

Some flooding was reported over the weekend in nearby villages of Kivalina and Deering, but with no major impacts, according to the Northwest Arctic Borough.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.